The Killer Inside Me (18)

Ryan Gilbey wonders why British directors seem to do better in Hollywood.

Considering the phenomenon of home-grown directors who punch above their weight on American soil - Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas), Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), Bernard Rose (Ivansxtc) - a screenwriter friend opined: "How come Brits never make movies like those when they stay at home?"

Not that passing through US immigration is enough on its own to confer artistic excellence and psychological insight on a film-maker. Alfred Hitchcock was already a genius before he went to America. Neil Jordan's US work has been dedicated to unleashing his inner hack. And Figgis had to endure a highly public Hollywood scolding over Mr Jones before the industry kissed him better for Leaving Las Vegas. But when it works, there is a tension between admiration and disdain, experienced by Britain towards the US, which is a gift to forensic detachment. Take that "big four" of pictures made by Brits in America, which are among the most probing in all cinema: Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success, John Boorman's Point Blank and Stephen Frears's The Grifters.

It can't be a coincidence that all except The Night of the Hunter have stakes of varying sizes in film noir; it's a genre that provides a fruitful angle from which artists of any nationality can expose American dreams as nightmares in disguise. The outsider mentality inherent in a foreign director is lent another dimension by film noir: it chimes with the genre's staple character of the misfit and voyeur. (That perpetual outsider Terence Davies will be the next Brit to go noir when he adapts Ed McBain's He Who Hesitates.) It may also spring from an extension of the tired adage about two countries divided by a common language; this applies equally to our cinematic vocabulary, which can feel starker and more uncompromising when it describes an American subject or setting.

That proves partly to be the case with The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 noir novel about a sheriff who is unassuming to the point of blandness, but with a secretly psychopathic side. If the source material is American, the method of realising it on screen follows a more typically European model.

The difference today, as opposed to the 1960s of Point Blank, is that the old geogra­phical divisions have become less distinct. The Killer Inside Me has its virtues, not to mention that pointlessness specific to anything that sets out to show how despicable humanity can be, but how culturally enshrined are they? Winter­bottom, in his first movie shot in the US, places us fully in the head of a sadist, but there's nothing in his film that could not have come from Lodge Kerrigan, the American director whose psychological case studies include Clean, Shaven and Keane.

The Grifters was also adapted from Thompson, but Winterbottom's film retains more of the writer's sharp corners and abrasive surfaces. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a small-town sheriff in 1950s Texas, whose off-white Stetson casts a shadow that slices his face in half; it's a reflection of his personality, torn between civility and cruelty. "All I can do is wait until I split right down the middle," he confesses in that high, uncertain voice which people use when they are lying, but which is Lou's only mode of address. The novel made it clear that Lou had form (he referred to his condition as "the sickness"). The film hints at this merely through the casualness with which he pulls on a pair of black gloves as he shoots
the breeze with the woman whose face he is about to demolish.

In common with the novel, the picture fastidiously traces Lou's appetites back to a childhood in which he was both abused and inci­pient abuser, while insisting that nothing can explain his behaviour. This feels plausible on the page, where readers have direct access to Lou's thoughts, however deluded. In cinema, there are other elements that can get in the way.

Winterbottom cleverly allows Lou to dictate the soundtrack at key moments, like someone cueing up the perfect iPod playlist for a road trip or a day at the beach. It is Lou's own piano playing that accompanies his nocturnal journey to kill Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute with whom he has been having an affair. And it is his rendition of "Shame on You" that blurs into the recorded version (by Spade Cooley and the Western Swing Dance Gang) when he decides to end things, in the most comprehensive way possible, with his sweetie-pie fiancée, Amy (Kate Hudson).

All the same, if Winterbottom really wanted to create a film immersed in Lou's psyche, he should have cut out any contradictory material. That would mean no gazing down dreamily from the heavens at the Dallas traffic, no cuts to the point of view of a blackmailer spying on Lou. The film cleaves to Lou's perspective by showing Amy outside the home on a few brief occasions, and Joyce only when she is being borne on a stretcher; these women exist for Lou primarily in the bedroom, where he beats them with belts or has sex with them while covering their faces with his hands. Winterbottom also brings to the material his great facility with montages, as displayed in Jude and Wonderland. As Lou casts his mind back over his summery salad days with Joyce, we see a murderer's self-delusion at work. Like a ruthless film editor, he leaves whatever doesn't fit on the cutting-room floor and prints the lie.

The Killer Inside Me has become notorious for two scenes of protracted brutality, which succeed in reclaiming violence, and violence against women in particular (men are mostly killed swiftly and out of sight), from the sanitised mainstream. But to what end? It feels like explaining toothache to someone by pinning them down and driving a drill into their upper molars.

Ryan Gilbey blogs about film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis